For those who want a change from the Gospel
Kingdom 3/2nd before Advent – Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
How would you feel if you were suddenly told that Jesus was coming back tomorrow? I can remember as a child growing up in the Baptist Church being absolutely terrified of Jesus’ return. I somehow picked up the idea that my eternal destiny would depend on what I happened to be doing at the moment Jesus appeared (I don’t think this is official Baptist theology). Not only did this belief lead to a very insecure life; it also taught me to sin quickly, thus reducing the statistical likelihood that I would be caught out like a thief in the night. As I’ve grown up, I have corrected my doctrine, but also, if I’m honest, lost that sense of urgency and immediacy. The people of Zephaniah’s age, possibly the 630s BC, also seem to have lost their sense of urgency, other than a vague awareness that the Day of the Lord will come one day eventually, and that it will mean Israel coming out on top again and the nations around them getting their come-uppance.
So Zephaniah’s dramatic message comes at them like a double whammy. He begins with an onomatopoeic Hebrew word translated ‘Listen!’ or ‘be silent!’ but actually more like ‘Hush!’. The Day of the Lord is coming any time now, and when it comes they will be the first to be judged. That judgement is described in the most dramatic detail: the filleted verses 8-11 describe crying and wailing as God begins with royal officials (perhaps those ruling during the years before King Josiah was old enough to reign) and then moves on to those who wear foreign clothes, possibly the vestments used in pagan worship. Next in line, somewhat inexplicably, are those who leap over the threshold of the Temple (?), and then the market traders. After that God will go through the darkest corners of the city with a powerful torch, seeking out those trying to hide in the dark corners, and those who are so complacent that they don’t even bother to hide. Plunder and destruction will be the order of the day, as God comes to punish and destroy.
Now with such an encouraging message many of our Marcionite tendencies immediately spring into action. As with the 2nd century heretic, we take comfort from believing that of course that is the OT God, the nasty judgemental one, not the nice Jesus we have in the Gospels. But this just won’t do, because Jesus too came as judge. John the Baptist’s heraldic warnings spoke of the coming wrath, of a chopping down and a burning up. Jesus begins his ministry (at least in John’s Gospel) by cleansing the Temple from all who bought and sold instead of praying, and continues with teaching about judgement, separation and punishment. We can’t get away with saying that Zephaniah’s words passed out of date at the beginning of Matthew: the OT God and the NT Messiah have the same judging role.
But something is different. Jesus does something which Zephaniah never did. He did something you’ll never see Judge John Deed doing. Yes, they both pronounce sentence, but Jesus takes it further: he gets down from the judge’s bench and enters the dock, and goes on to die a criminal’s death, our criminals’ death.
So corrupt leadership, false worship, superstition and unjust moneygrabbing are all soundly condemned, and will be punished, but lurking in this list of doom is one little phrase which might just the most frightening of all. Perhaps the greatest punishment will be reserved for those who say to themselves ‘The Lord will do nothing, neither good or bad’. What is really going on here is the loss of belief in an active God and a moral God. Once you lose that, you really have lost the plot. Remember these are not atheists or pagans: these are God’s chosen people. Heaven help us when we convince ourselves that God doesn’t care how we live, or that even if he does he’s powerless to do anything about it. What on earth kind of faith does that leave us with?
So as we approach Advent, when we traditionally focus on judgement and being ready so we’re on the right side of it, Zephaniah shouts out to us ‘Hush! Shut up and listen!’ Have the right theology to see God for who he really is, the righteous judge who will have no truck with anything impure, and have the right humility to cry to him for mercy. Have the right lifestyle which is one of gratitude for Jesus’ having taken our sins and given us his righteousness.